Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Denise Verrico Interview

Halo, friends! You know I have guests now and then, but I don't very often have the luxury of interviewing them. Most of that is time constraint... you see, I like to read the book if I'm to interview, and don't always have time. Denise though, has been here a few times and I thought it would be fun to shake things up a bit, and she was willing to send me a copy of My Fearful Symmetry, the third in her Immortal Revolution series. I plan a full review on Friday, but you will definitely get a feel for the book from my questions.. I am in purple and Denise is in blue..

So without further ado, Welcome, Denise!

I think the thing that struck me so strongly reading your book was how rich the language was. I came into it with 'Vampire' and 'erotic' and a set of assumptions that were more 'Hershey bar' but the experience was a Dove dark chocolate—I could savor and enjoy it and feel like it wasn't just empty calories, if you will. Is that just your writing style, or did you make a conscious decision to make this as beautiful as possible to read?

Hart, I love your metaphor. It makes me want to indulge in some really decadent sweets. Hmm, isn’t chocolate also a euphemism for kinky sex?

Yes, I did set out to write something a bit different with this book. My goal was to create a sumptuous backdrop for Cedric’s story, something a bit more exotic than in the first two books. My writing is very dialogue driven. I was a playwright first, and I don’t use a lot of narrative. What descriptive language I use has to pack a lot of punch to deliver the mood I’m looking for. I’m very big on the connotative meaning of verbs. You can say someone ran, but it’s more interesting to say sprinted, ambled, jogged, took flight etc. In this way, the writer can lose a lot of adjectives and adverbs yet still convey a strong image. This goes back to my theatre training. An actor is always looking for the playable action that makes the story interesting.

I like my characters to have depth and reality even though they are vampires. When creating characters, I ask myself this question: How would a person react to being plunged into this very strange world? Cedric is very real to me. I think of him as a person who happens to be a vampire. This condition gives him an extra set of obstacles to overcome. In writing any kind of speculative fiction, the writer must approach a fantastical creature as a human being with an inner conflict.
I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. You can see this in Cedric’s story. He grows a lot as a person throughout the book. One of my colleagues tells me I write “grown-up” vampire stories that deal with serious themes. I confess to being a bit of a philosopher. Vampires are the ultimate metaphor for the human condition. We’re carnivores with a soul. No other predatory animal worries that killing is wrong. We see the implications of our actions. The vampire is the monster that looks just like us.

So this brings us to the question of sex. The word erotic can mean different things to different people. I wasn’t aiming to write a story that the sole purpose is titillation, but that aspect is there. It’s been said that I write about vampire sexual politics. There are no graphic descriptions of sex in my books, yet there is this constant sexual atmosphere. The only things that throb in this book are drumbeats. I tried to present a sensual world as perceived by a creature with enhanced senses. The dream-like quality of Anne Rice’s vampire novels always appealed to me. Although our styles are very different, I have to say she is an influence.

Part of this richness is the detail of the places, London, India, Hong Kong—have you had a chance to visit these places with writing about them in mind? What is your favorite place you've written about, and why?

Well, I must confess to never having been to any of those places, although I have wanted to go. If I were writing a novel about contemporary life in those places, I would certainly have to visit them. The world I’ve created in my novels is off the grid. The chief elder’s compound in the Hill Country of India and Lord Liu’s house in Hong Kong are pockets of Immortyl culture hidden from the real world, not in a supernatural sense like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, but in that Immortyls are intensely private people. I often think of polygamists and the S&M community, who carry on their lives in the “real world”, but have a subculture largely unknown to people around them. I do a lot of research on locations through books, documentary films and the Internet. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet, everything from statistics regarding London rent boys to how long it takes to travel from Kolkata to the Hill Country. My favorite place to write about is New York City. I was born eight miles outside of the city and lived in and around it for several years as an adult. It’s my favorite place I’ve been so far. In book four, Ratopia, I’m striving to make the city a character in itself.

How much research went into making India, the spiritual stuff in particular (that if I'm guessing has Hindu overlap), and the lifestyle of... what feels a lot like a cult—I mean I get that Vampires are different in their lack of control over membership and selection, but it felt much more real and richly detailed than a lot of these I read, and like you may indeed have done some cult research into its hierarchy and structure.

I did a lot of research on Indian erotic literature, arts and culture and history for this book. My intention wasn’t to recreate historical India, but to imagine a vampire subculture within the country. The religious aspect of the Immortyl culture is actually drawn from Tantrism, not Hinduism. Tantrism is an older form of worship from pre-Aryan times. It focuses on Goddess worship and sex is part of some rituals. A lot of what I read on Tantra was very academic and didn’t focus on the sex techniques. 
Luckily, I have a colleague who experimented with the Sex Majick stuff in the sixties. He found me some great sources of material.

The Immortyls focus on Kali worship. Kali is often misunderstood in the West. She isn’t the goddess of death, but the goddess of time. She does have a reputation for drinking blood, but only that of evil demons. Historically, only one group associated with her was violent. This group was called the Thugees. They were the basis for the Kali cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There is an element of the Thugees in Kalidasa the chief elder’s view on Kali.

In this book, you see a different side of Immortyl culture than in my first two books that focus on characters living in the West. You hit the nail on the head, Hart. In the chief elder’s compound, things are run like a cult. The chief uses religion to control his subjects. He’s made himself supreme pontiff and uses threats of divine retribution in order to rule by fear. His subjects are beguiled into the cult with drugs and sexual pleasure. As long as the faithful fear the leader, he can maintain control. For a savvy outsider like Cedric, the whole thing is immediately transparent, but because of his teacher, Sandhya, he begins to respect Kali and the foundation of the Tantric beliefs that have been perverted by the chief elder. Cedric has become an adept at the very moment that all that the chief elder represents is under the threat of revolution. Those who believe that Immortyls are biologically mutated in some way question the idea that vampires aren’t semi-divine children of the goddess.

The selection process of Immortyls depends on the place they occupy in their culture. The ruling classes are chosen for leadership ability and wealth, soldiers for strength and fighting skill. Household slaves like Cedric are chosen for their youth and beauty, but if one is being considered for adept training, musical talent and brains are also mandatory. Adepts are employed as courtesans and they must be well versed in many subjects and multi-talented performers.

So in my understanding, an adept is actually a magical or spiritual conduit, yes? In your story, though, the adept 'magic' is of s sexual nature. Is this based on any actual cultural use, or did you come up with this? (it's brilliant, by the way)

Well, it’s open for interpretation whether there is actual magic or not. Cedric is certainly a skeptic at first. There is some precedent for the Immortyl rituals in Tantric practice, but I created my own rites for the book. In Tantra, the idea of sex rituals is to gain control over one’s sexual energy to obtain blessings. Sexual desire is a positive force, but it shouldn’t control a person. If channeled properly it is very powerful. When one approaches sex in the “proper” manner, the experience is described as having heightened awareness. One can actually see colors pulsating and hear music when approaching orgasm. The goal of Tantra is to achieve Ananda, a state of heightened spirituality.

The creative power of the universe is referred to as Shakti. This is also the feminine principle. The Goddess is also called Shakti, and she takes on many forms, some benevolent and some fearsome, like Kali and Durga. Kali is often depicted standing on the body of her husband, Shiva. This signifies that the male principle is subordinate to the female in the scheme of the cosmos.

The role I’ve imagined for the adept is that of a facilitator in the sex ritual. They reenact the Goddess Kali conferring the gift of immortality upon the Immortyls. The adept becomes the conduit of this power. There is an exchange of blood in the Immortyl ritual as well as sexual intercourse. Blood can be an element of tantra as well, but the Immortyl ritual is drawn mostly from my imagination.

And I’m sure someone out there is asking if the writer experienced all this. I suppose I should leave a little something to the imagination.

And what drew you into this highly sexualized take on the Vampire world? Have you had other influences that led you this direction?

Vampires are highly sexual creatures in a lot of mythology. I like to think of them this way. You could say my vamps are actually sci fi, because they aren’t dead, but mutated by a symbiotic organism. (This doesn’t really come into play much in book three). If they have heightened senses, it stands to reason they’d have heightened sex drives.

I’m attracted to the Asian view of vampires. The European and Slavic legends portray vampires as bloated zombie-like creatures, but those in Eastern lore are often incubi and succubi that feed on sexual energy and may or may not feed on blood. They aren’t usually reanimated corpses, but sometimes spirits or deities. Many of these are female. Kali, and her attendants the dakini, haunt graveyards and battlefields. The goddess drinks the blood of the demons she slays. Hebrew tradition gives us the story of Lillith and the Greeks have the Lamiae, which may well have their roots in India and Kali.

In the Western literary tradition, vampires are a lot about sexual taboos. Most of this came out of the nineteenth century. The model for the “gentleman vampire” was the poet Lord Byron, who was quite the sexual adventurer. His personal physician, John Polidori wrote a book called The Vampyre. This novel might have been actually started by Byron and completed by Polidori. Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu deals with a lesbian relationship. Count Dracula lives in a polygamous union with three female vampires and is looking to add a fourth.

All of these traditions in legend and literature have contributed to my imagining of the vampire.

I love how you've arranged Cedric's entry into being a Vampire—a male prostitute who spends some time busking, so he had skill in both sexual pleasure and music. It set him up as believable for what comes later. I wonder though, how important to you the 'dying anyway' piece was. Do you think Cedric's attitude might have been different? Reader reaction to him? I'm just wondering how central that piece was to the arc you had in mind for him.

Well, it wasn’t so much that Cedric chose to be an Immortyl because he was dying, but that he desperately wanted to live and live well at any cost. It’s a Faustian bargain, if you will. Cedric is smart, but at first he’s very selfish. From what I’ve read about people in desperate circumstances, it’s a good quality to have if one wants to survive. I think Cedric would have been lured by Raj even if he weren’t infected with AIDS. Raj is handsome, erudite and wealthy. All of these things are part of a world in which Cedric wants to live. One thing to keep in mind, Cedric isn’t always truthful in his narrative. He claims to prefer girls, but he’s bisexual, smack dab in the middle of the Kinsey scale, a solid three. Raj is the first person with which he falls madly in love.

On a more serious note, an estimated 33% of rent boys (most under age eighteen) who work the streets in London are infected with HIV.  If a kid is hungry and sex without a condom means a little more money, he takes that chance, or like in Cedric’s case, a customer may have raped him.  The heart of my series is the sewer rats, feral child and teen vampires who’ve been trafficked and victimized.  Sexual slavery is the reality for many women and children in the present day.  Real-life “vampires” make money off the bodies of these victims.  If I have a soapbox in these books, this is it. 

And confess... was there any tongue in cheek in mind by naming him Cedric when the current pop sweetheart of Vampires is played by Robbie Pattinson who also plays a character named Cedric? (or is that my Harry Potter obsession showing)?

Good try, Hart, but no. Cedric’s name comes from a character in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Scott is a big literary hero in Scotland, and I imagined my Cedric’s mother as being a bit of a romantic. She named her son after a Saxon warrior chieftain, who seeks to overthrow the Norman conquerors. This name underscores the warrior spirit of my hero. Cedric is flamboyant and sometimes he shimmers, but never under any circumstances does he sparkle. You say Pattison plays a vampire? Hmm…that’s news to me. I sometimes wear a “Buffy Staked Edward” shirt. It’s amazing how many high fives I get. I like to kid Twilight fans, but I’m not a rabid hater. Gosh, I wish I thought of the idea first and made bazillion dollars. No, I had to write this operatic-scale saga about the race to capture the secrets of immortality when the world wanted a story about a teenaged girl falling in love with a vampire.

This is your third book in the series, yes? For readers—it is the first I read, I felt it was very easy to engage in—but how many books do you have planned in the series? And has your conception of the overall story changes as you've made your way forward?

This is book three, and it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. I’d love to write nine books, but a lot of that has to do with sales etc. When I started the first book, I had no idea of this becoming a series, but when I finished a 700 page first draft, my husband suggested that I had a series. I cut the first book to 300 or so pages and put some of the material into the second book. Having the first two books written, I marketed them as a series.

Cedric was the biggest change in the series arc. He was one of those characters who insisted on telling his story and hijacked the series plot somewhat. This character will evolve a lot throughout the books and remain a major player. His story will intertwine with Mia and Kurt’s until the very end. The boy has a lot of surprises in him.

Hart, thanks so much for having me here today. You asked such interesting questions, and I always enjoy chatting with your followers. I’m happy to answer here any questions your readers might have, and they are welcome to contact me through my website or blog is they wish.

Thank YOU, Denise! This was great! And for those of you who missed the announcement yesterday:

Denise offered to give away a t-shirt that says 'I am an adept of the ancient arts' which if you read her book you will know is QUITE the bragging rights! Very likely to get you all SORTS of propositions, offers of cash and possibly cookies... So... if you WANT to win, just comment, all week long with the phrase 'Kinky Vampire sex' (or if you are a prude you can just say 'I want to win!'). To double your chances, tweet or facebook share Today's or Friday's posts that feature Denise and her book! (and let me know... mind reading is not among my skills)  [Sadly, she can only ship US and Canada]


Siv Maria said...

Wow, this is great and Kinky Vampire sex even better...LOL!

Jessica Bell said...

Wow. This sounds really interesting. Never ever heard of a prostitute/musician vampire before! Hmm ... I'm intrigued.

Old Kitty said...

I always, always, always think vampires are erotic sexy sensual naughty and ever so S&M creatures!!! So yay for a grown up highly erotic sounding vampire book!!!

What a really indepth interview - love the use Tantra sex, India pantheon of god and goddesses and Cedric!!! Yay!! Thanks Tart and Denise!

Take care

Denise Verrico said...

Great comments! Keep them coming. Hart, I'
m thriled to be here today. I'll be stopping back later.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

ummm, this sounds awesome! Also, i reeeeeally want some dark chocolate now. Good thing i always keep a supply!

Talli Roland said...

Wow, what a fantastic, in-depth interview. Thanks, ladies! The book sounds fascinating.

Hart Johnson said...

Thanks so much for stopping in, everyone! It was a fun interview to do (and a fun book to read!)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If she's used to a lot of dialogue, then the descriptive scenes must've been difficult.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sounds like a carefully plotted book with well-researched settings and traditions. Interesting! Thanks for sharing this with us.

Helena said...

I am so very impressed with the level of research Denise has done -- definitely a book I'd like to read. And good for her for getting on a "soapbox" about child traffiking in her story.

Michael Offutt said...

Okay I'm intrigued. I must read these vampire books.

Denise Verrico said...

Alex, the descriptive stuff did come hard when I first started writing fiction. I've got some great folks in my critique groups who have helped me refine my technique over the last few years. Actually, coming from a playwright's background has been a plus. A writer doesn't want to go overboard with descriptive passages.